One of my most important possessions is a $2.99 spiral notebook. I carry it with me wherever I go. It’s this notebook where I record all my ideas, journal my experiences and practice my favorite creativity exercises.
I’ve always desired to be a creative person. I was never the analytical type. I’m still amazed at how often people say they’re just not creative as if they were born without the necessary genes to think creatively.
Here’s the truth.
Creativity is a skill you can learn. It’s a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. We don’t always get a chance to do creative things in our everyday life. But that doesn’t mean we cannot exercise our creative muscle.
These are the five best exercises I’ve come across, and I’ve tried dozens. These exercises help you sharpen several aspects of your creative mind.
Find or create meaning where none exists
Develop a vivid imagination
Develop innovative solutions to problems
You can do each exercise in ten to fifteen minutes. I typically do one of these each day. When I first embarked on this journey, I dedicated forty-five minutes per day. I’ve since cut down to fifteen minutes. Carve out whatever time you can and watch your creativity skills bloom.
Exercise 1: The Magic Of Constraints
This next statement will sound counter-intuitive.
Constraints force you to think creatively. Give yourself limitations or restrictions, and you push your mind to generate inventive ideas and solutions. It also forces you to focus your brain on a specific problem and inhibits mind-wandering. There are several ways you can practice this on a daily basis. Add constraints to descriptions, activities and problems.
Here are three examples you can model for yourself.
Description: Describe your dream bedroom.
Constraints: The walls must be painted white. The bedspread must contain the color blue.
Activity: Tell a story about life in your town or city.
Constraints: The story must include a romance between a thirty-year-old woman and a twenty-two-year-old man.
Problem: You’re going on vacation tomorrow with your family. Your boss calls and tells you he needs you in the office for the next week. What do you do?
Constraints: You cannot cancel your vacation. You cannot refuse your boss.
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit — Igor Stravinsky
Exercise 2: Find The Benefit Of The Benefit
This exercise helps you see things that are not readily apparent. It teaches you to draw inferences, an essential skill in any field. Like the constraint exercise, it forces your brain to focus on a narrow problem. This focus forces you to think in unorthodox ways.
Let’s look at a simple example.
What is the benefit of solar power? It cuts down on fossil fuel usage
What is the benefit of cutting down on fossil fuel usage? We reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
What is the benefit of reducing carbon dioxide emissions? It slows the effect of climate change.
You see where I’m going with this, right? You keep digging and digging. At some point your brain struggles. It’s tempting to give up. Here’s the key. You cannot stop when you run out of benefits. You need to force yourself to keep going. Think of it like weight lifting. You need to push past the last rep in order for your muscle to strengthen.
Exercise 3: Find Meaning In The Mundane
The exercise forces you to derive meaning from simple actions and observations. Go to a coffee shop, park or wherever you find lots of people. Bring a notebook or laptop with you. Observe the people around you. Take notes. Pay careful attention to the kind of things we usually ignore.
Is your subject wearing a jacket even though you’re indoors?
How is she gripping her coffee cup?
How engaged is he with his work?
These are a few sample questions you can ask yourself. The point is to pay attention to as many details as possible.
Write down the actions of the people you observe. There is no need to track who does what. You can mix and match later.
Select two of these descriptions and actions and put them in a sentence. Next, add an abstract statement. The abstract statement gives the concrete actions meaning.
Concrete + Abstract = Meaning
Here is an example.
Concrete: A man wearing a leather jacket typed furiously on his laptop. His venti coffee appeared untouched.
Now, we give the concrete actions and description meaning by adding an abstract statement.
Concrete plus Abstract: A man wearing a leather jacket typed furiously on his laptop. His venti coffee appeared untouched. He held onto a tiny bit of hope that this apology letter would save his marriage.
I could have also written it another way.
Concrete plus Abstract: A man wearing a leather jacket typed furiously on his laptop. His venti coffee appeared untouched. He was so captivated by his girlfriend’s chats, he forgot about the rest of the world.
For all I know, he could have been typing a recipe for apple pie. There are no right or wrong answers. You can assign whatever meaning you want.
Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be — Joseph Campbell
Exercise 4: A Title In Eight Words
Create a headline or story title that conjures up a backstory, emotional response or intrigue. You are limited to eight words for each title.
The idea came from the famous, but unsubstantiated, Hemingway title: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” You can read about the history of it on Wikipedia.
This exercise focuses on a specialized facet of creativity — the ability to generate curiosity and anticipation. This exercise is harder than you think. Many of the ideas you will generate will fail to produce curiosity.
Here are a few examples.
Title: Honeymoon trip. Cancel or go alone?
Curiosity: Did she cancel the wedding or did he? What was the reason behind it?
Title: Looking For a Reliable Mechanic. Discretion Required.
Curiosity: Why would you need discretion from a mechanic? Are you hiding something?
Tip: Use words that don’t usually belong together. By combining those words, you generate curiosity (mechanic and discretion). Always ask yourself if your title generates curiosity or intrigue. Does it conjure up a backstory? Do you want to know more?
Curiosity is the lust of the mind — Thomas Hobbs
Exercise 5: Find The Hidden Gem
This exercise also tests your observation skills and helps cultivate your imagination.
Take a walk around your office, outside or a coffee shop. The actual location does not matter. Pick the first thing that catches your eye. It might be a coworker talking on the phone, a woman sipping coffee at a cafe or a bird pecking around the ground for food. Again, it does not matter what you choose. Just pick something.
Once you choose your subject, proceed to the next steps.
- Ask yourself what’s interesting about your subject and write it out in your notebook.
- What would make it more interesting? (Ask this question if the previous answer yielded nothing worthwhile).
- What’s the story behind it?
Here’s one of my examples.
Subject: Woman in the park eats lunch while texting.
What’s Interesting? She’s wearing one sandal. She’s bobbing her heal up and down. Her other sandal is on the grass about two feet away from her table. She must have flung it off.
Story: She’s a white collar worker at a nearby financial company. In her spare time, she cycles and works out. She hates her high-stress job. She’s texting with coworkers who demand she return to solve some problem. She’s feeling anxious. The constant shaking of her leg and the speed at which she’s shoveling food in her mouth point me to this conclusion. She chose her job because it paid better than any other option, but she wishes she could pursue her dream of opening up a cycling studio.
You can make up anything with this exercise. It forces you to use your imagination and invent a backstory.
Everything You Can Imagine Is Real — Pablo Picasso